Lady with the Devil's Scar
Lady with the Devil's Scar
Praise for Sophia James:
‘James weaves her spell, captivating readers
with wit and wisdom, and cleverly combining humour and poignancy with a master’s touch in this feel-good love story.’ —RT Book Reviews on HIGH SEAS TO HIGH SOCIETY
‘Putting a hero bent on revenge and the “perfect” lady
together is a recipe for conflict. Add the warmth of the holiday season, delightful children, pride, passion and a ruthless villain, and you have James’ heartwarming, fast-paced holiday romance.’ —RT Book Reviews on MISTLETOE MAGIC
‘Award-winning author Sophia James
kicks off proceedings with CHRISTMAS AT BELHAVEN CASTLE: a gripping tale of second chances, forbidden attraction and unexpected passion!’ —Cataromance on Gift-Wrapped Governess anthology
They had broken through and flooded into the castle just as she had sat down for a rest. She had not had the time to gather her gloves or headgear but had been caught in the flight downstairs, where she now fought back against as many of the enemy as she could.
A keening cry of fury rent the air around her, turning the hairs on her arms up into panic as her eyes caught sight of the one she had thought never to see again.
In the mail of King David, sword tipped red.
A traitor and a betrayer. A man who would leave the Keep of Ceann Gronna with secrets in his head, to return a brace of months later and use them against those who had only been kind.
A payment of death for the gift of life. She could smell the sea spray on him as he jostled closer, his eyes cold with the knowledge of retribution and deceit.
About the Author
SOPHIA JAMES lives in Chelsea Bay on Auckland, New Zealand’s North Shore, with her husband, who is an artist, and three children. She spends her morning teaching adults English at the local Migrant School and writes in the afternoon. Sophia has a degree in English and History from Auckland University, and believes her love of writing was formed reading Georgette Heyer with her twin sister at her grandmother’s house.
Previous novels by the same author:
ASHBLANE’S LADY HIGH SEAS TO HIGH SOCIETY MASQUERADING MISTRESS KNIGHT OF GRACE (published as The Border Lord in North America) MISTLETOE MAGIC (part of Christmas Betrothals) ONE UNASHAMED NIGHT ONE ILLICIT NIGHT CHRISTMAS AT BELHAVEN CASTLE (part of Gift-Wrapped Governess anthology)
Did you know that some of these novels are also available as eBooks? Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk
Lady with the Devil’s Scar
For the Chelsea Bay Book Club … my group of warrior women.
1346—Fife Ness, Scotland
Isobel Dalceann saw the shapes from the beach, beyond the waves, turning in the current, dark against silver. Eight or more of them, lost in the grey swell of stormtide as mist swallowed outline.
‘There,’ she shouted to the two men beside her. ‘Two hundred yards out.’
The Heads yielded an odd wreck of a boat sometimes or the carcase of a sea creature long since dead … but this? Dusk spread from the west, burnishing lead with a blushed quiet pink and changing something that was not known into something that was.
‘People!’ Ian voiced the knowledge first. Not wood or fish or the trunk of a tree that had slipped into the brine somewhere near Dundee before travelling south in the cold currents, but people. People who would drown unless she helped them; she had always been a strong swimmer.
Stripping off brogans and tunic, she removed the dirk held by straps against her ankle and ran.
The water took her breath before she had crossed the first waves, long beaching swells with the chill of the northern climes on their edge; when her hair knotted around her arms, forcing her to tread water, she rebound it tight.
Ten yards away Ian shouted and Angus responded, the next breaker lifting them all and aiding direction. She could hear the beat of blood in her ears as the wash took her under. Counting the seconds to surface, she kicked her feet hard and broke through just short of one of the survivors.
An open cut from elbow to shoulder bone wept red into the sea, swirling in the foam before being lost to the great vastness of the German Ocean. He barely registered her presence as she paddled across, noticing for the first time that another lay beside him.
‘I will take him while you swim in,’ she shouted above the wind as rain started, each drop forming bowls on the surface, tiny pits in a boiling sea.
‘No.’ He held on with the tenacity of one who would not let go, green eyes steeled into resolve; as Isobel looked closer, she saw the man between them was long dead.
‘He’s gone. The sea has taken him.’
Shaking his head, he turned from her, shoulders hunching into grief. The curl of his fingers tightened even as she watched, dimpled white and marred with bruises as he breathed in once and then twice, garnering strength and regrouping will. How often had she done the same herself, the loneliness of everything unbearable?
‘Let me help,’ she called, ‘for the shore is far away.’ Her touch against his shoulder roused him from his own private hell as he gazed at her with all the arrogance of one unused to direction.
Isobel pushed down a stir of unease. Even the few paltry moments that she had been in the ocean had chilled her and she wondered how these people could have survived for so long.
‘H-help the others behind me f-first.’ When he shifted his hand to cradle the head of the man he supported, a thick band of wrought-plaited gold lay at his wrist.
No simple sailor, then, plying the straits between England and Scotland to gain a living. His accent held the softer beat of another more foreign land.
A shout behind made her turn. Isobel saw that Angus panted with cold, his legs treading water with exaggerated hurry as he tried to keep warm. Fear struck deep. Two hundred yards from safety, with the rolling edge of a sea storm coming in from the east. Behind him two men were trying to rise on his bulk in their fight to gain breath.
Lord. The sea claimed its victims without recourse to any fair play or just reserve. Swimming over, she clouted the oldest man hard across the head, breaking his grip and pressing against his throat, pleased as his eyes rolled into white. Then she did the same to the youngest.
‘Que Dieu nous en garde!’ Marc muttered. The woman with the scar from one side of her face to the other was killing those with him one by one and the chill that held him stiff with cold meant he could do nothing about it.
Guy was dead. He had known it all of an hour ago and still his fingers could not open to simply let go.
The water beneath him called, an easy rest and an ending, and the strength that had held him to the task of rescue was suddenly gone. He could not care. It was finished. As his fingers opened and his eyelids rested he felt the warmth that had long since been leached from his body return in a quick and bright light.
Scotland. His father’s land. He had not quite made it.
‘Hold him from behind,’ Isobel instructed Angus. ‘Do not let him turn for he will pull you down in his panic.’
‘I cannae handle the both of them, mind.’ Angus’s words were thrown through the gathering wind.
‘Then choose the youngest.’ Such a choice out here in a sea that was rising held no guilt for Isobel. The fittest would survive and be done with it.
But the green-eyed stranger was gone, too, pulled beneath the sea by lethargy, his red sleeveless surcoat with the bright gold braiding disappeared. She should leave him, of course, should take the advice she had just offered Angus, but a stronger force willed her to action. Diving down through the murky water, she saw him turn towards her, as if he had known she might be there, glances catching through the brine, the white of his skin the colour of death.
One last kick and she reached out to snag cloth before hauling him up into the dusk and air. They surfaced like a log might in a swollen mountain stream, a curtain of foam and salt lashed around them, rain stinging skin.
Thumping his back hard with the heel of her hand, she felt him take a breath, the rise and fall of his chest strong as he coughed, a hacking endless bark that dislodged the water he had swallowed. His hair lay around his face in tousled dark-blond tails, wiped back as he found breath in a hard movement, his lips blue.
Around her the cries of the survivors told another story. One stranger perished here and another there. They floated away with their faces down in the water, swirling as leaves in the current.
She could not save everyone with a changing stormtide on the turn for out. All the will in the world could not alter what happened to those too long in the hands of the sea as the heat of skin cooled and relaxed into death.
But the green-eyed stranger hung on through the breakers, his mouth tilted towards the air, the cold chattering of his teeth like a drum beat as they came closer to landfall. He was using his strength to help her, too; she could feel his legs move against her own until his feet found purchase on the ocean floor.
He was tall, then. Much taller than her husband had been before …
But she did not think of that as she brushed away anger and watched him stand, the sea to his waist now, every second showing more of a man who looked nothing like anyone from around Fife. Menace and danger lingered in the long bones of his body, the fancy surcoat with its plaited braiding belying the man beneath.
‘I can m-manage,’ he said abruptly and turned to watch her two men find the shore, each bringing with them a survivor from the stricken boat.
Three people out of eight, was her anguished thought. Lord God, that it could have been more.
The fierce desolation in his eyes told her that he also counted, though he was swaying with cold, tiredness and injury, the open gash on his arm pulled apart by the sea into a lengthy, grim, dark line on his upper arm. It no longer bled. Isobel wondered whether that was a good sign or a bad one.
‘We are camped in the trees and there is warmth there.’ She did not like the anxiety she could hear in her words, as though it might be important to her that he did live, but he was barely listening as he walked across to his friend and spoke softly in a language she recognised as French. Both turned to the line of bush behind them as if weighing their chances of safety.
‘How is it you are called?’ His voice was stronger now as he switched back to English.
‘Isobel Dalceann. My home lies two days’ walk west along the coast from here.’
She saw how his glance took in her sodden hose, tight about her legs, her ankles full on show. It had been so long since she had worn the garb of a woman that she’d forgotten that those who did not know her might find it odd. Without meaning to she smiled and saw the sting of it in his eyes. Her scar, probably. It always puckered badly over one cheek when she showed emotion.
With the night coming on, however, she had had enough. She had risked her own life and any criticism of what she looked like or dressed like would have to wait till later. There were rabbits skinned and trussed near the fire and a half-a-dozen fish wrapped in leaves beside them. Once they had eaten their fill and found blankets to shelter beneath she could determine just what it was these newcomers sought and how quickly she could be rid of them.
‘Sacrée Vierge.’ Marc could hardly place one foot in front of the other one as he came into the camp under the trees, his head spinning in a way that made balance difficult. Perhaps it was the blood loss or the cold or simply the near-transportation of his soul from this life to the next one, leaving flesh behind. He had seen it before on the battlefields in France, the astonishment of death greater even than the fear of it. The anger in him rose as he refocused on that about him.
It was dark beneath the cover of the canopy of trees and afternoon rain had left a dampness that was all-encompassing.
Simon looked as exhausted as he did. The other survivor’s name he had no notion of, but fancied him to be one of the deckhands on the boat into Edinburgh. The young man shook so much that he needed to be carried between the arms of the two men who had swum out. Marc knew that he would not last long. The woman was ordering everyone around and the knives strapped to her ankle and belt were sharp.
‘Where exactly are we?’ he purposefully asked in French. The blank response confirmed what he had suspected. None spoke the language. He was glad, for it allowed Simon and him privacy to decide what to do.
‘They are all well armed and we are both injured. We will need to wait for our moment.’
Simon nodded. ‘At a guess I would place us somewhere on the Nose of Fife just north from where the Firth enters the coast down into Edinburgh.’ His hand ran across his upper thigh, a bruise seen through the tear in his clothing. His voice sounded rough. ‘What do you imagine they mean to do with—?’
The question was cut off by the sudden intrusion of one of their saviours looming close as the cross at Simon’s neck was ripped away. The ring on his finger was gestured to next.
When he went to protest Marc stopped him. ‘Wait. It is only the trinkets they need, after all; as payment for our lives, I’d deem it fair.’
Stripping his bracelet from his wrist, Marc placed it on the ground. As he did so he looked up and saw the woman watching him, a scowl on her face and anger in her brown eyes. She glanced away as soon as she perceived his notice and continued to tend to the fire and food.
Her hair had escaped its binding and fell in a sheer dark curtain to her waist. In the building flame there were lights of shot red amongst wet ebony and he was surprised by the want that surged inside him as he thought of what it might feel like to touch.
Shaking away such nonsense, he sat on the ground and leaned back against a tree, feeling better with the strong solidness of wood behind him.
‘Where are you from?’
Her voice was hard, the frustration in it unhidden. He noticed she did not ask for names.
‘France.’ He had decided that there were only certain pieces that needed telling. ‘The boat we were on was blown off course and overturned in the storm.’
Her attention was drawn to the other men beside her, their words rising in anger as they squabbled over the jewels. She stopped them with a short command, though the oldest of the pair drew his hands into fists and punched the air, twice.
Staying expressionless, Marc looked back at the woman. Her fingers had crept to the knife at her belt, relaxing as she saw one of her men move off into the forest, though when she gestured to the other to tie them up Marc swore beneath his breath.
He could fight, he supposed, and win, but with an arm that needed some attention and Simon with a leg that was taking him nowhere he thought it better to wait.
The rope was thick and well secured, putting them a good length away from each other. When the man was finished Isobel Dalceann checked the ropes herself. Her flesh was freezing as her arm brushed against her prisoner’s and he thought for the first time that she was good at hiding her feelings.
‘We’ll unfasten you when the food is ready, but at every other time you will be tethered until we decide what to do with you. After dinner I will tend to your arm.’
Her last sentence heartened him. If she meant to kill them, surely she would not waste any time caring for them first? Then the import of what she said sunk in. The gash was deep and the light was bad and the few belongings seen in this provisional camp pointed to the fact that medical care would be at best basic.
‘I can wait.’
His saviour began to laugh and there were deep dimples in both her cheeks. He heard Simon next to him draw in breath and knew that his thoughts were exactly the same as his own.
This warrior queen was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, despite the scar and her garb and the grimace that was her more normal expression. Looking away, he tried to take stock of such thoughts and failed. Beneath his tight hose lust grew. God … the world was falling topsy-turvy and he could stop none of it. Shifting his stance, he bent his knees.
‘Wait for what? Edinburgh is almost a week’s worth of walking from here and by that time your arm …’ She stopped, her teeth worrying her bottom lip. ‘The sea may have cleaned it, of course, but the bindings holding you are well used.’
He frowned, not understanding her reasoning.
‘It is my experience that filth often finishes what a blade begins.’
Riddles. Another thought wormed into his head. Was she one of the silkies that the legends from these parts were full of? He had never seen a woman so easily able to manage the sea before and the colour of her hair was that of the sleek black coats of fur seals often sighted off the coastline.
Lord. The blood loss was making him unhinged and those knowing eyes so full of secrets were directing him to imagine things that would never come to pass.
He looked away and did not speak again.
The stranger would be screaming before the night was out despite the careful diction in his sentences. Isobel was glad for it, glad to imagine the weakness in him as he submitted to a mending that would not be easy.
He unsettled her with his verdant, vivid eyes, his high-priced golden bracelet and his French accent. Ian had wanted to kill him, finish him off and be done with any nuisance or trouble, but the thought of his blood running on the ground as his soul left for the places above or below filled her with a dread she had not felt before. They were probably David’s men, newly returned from France with the fire of the power of the monarch in their bellies, and no mind for the ancient laws.
What would they know of her and of Ceann Gronna?
‘Unmarriageable Isobel’ she was called now; she had heard it from a bard who had come to the keep with a song of the same name.
Swearing soundly, she returned to the food, panic subsiding as the everyday task took her attention; two days’ walk to the keep and another two to Dunfermline where the strangers could be sent by ferry across the Firth towards Edinburgh.
She wished Ian and Angus had not been with her, for she would have to watch them and the foreigners at the same time. Anything of worth had been taken, after all, and now their presence could only be a bother. Isobel doubted the third man would last the night, given his colour, but there was little in truth she could do about any of it.
She hoped that the green-eyed man would speak the French again so she might overlisten and at least know just what his intentions were.
The jewellery might tell her something of them, of course, but she did not wish to ask Angus for a look at the haul just to probe into the mystery of who he was. Nae. Better she never knew and sent him on, out of her life and out of her notice.
The simple silver ring on her own finger tightened as she turned it, a lifetime pledge reduced to just two years, and then a yoke of guilt. Sometimes, like now, she hated who she had become, a scavenger outside the new system of government imposed on the old virtue of possession, leaving no true home in any of it. Even the ground did not speak to her as it used to, whispering promises of the for ever. Once the system of lairdship had ruled this place, the great estates handed down through the generations, like treasured possessions and always nurtured. Until King David had come with his fealty and his barons, taking the land by force and granting it to his own vassals for their allegiance and loyalty.
Now possession was tempered by blood and war and betrayal. Sweat beaded beneath the hair at her nape and if she had been alone she might have lifted the heavy mass away from her skin and simply stood there.
But she was not alone.
She could feel his eyes on her back like a hawk might watch a mouse crossing a field. Waiting.
Had he not said exactly that to his friend as he sat there against the tree, his hose tight in places that made the blood in her face roar.
The name came beneath breath like a prayer or a plea, invoking what was lost and would never be again. She was glad when Angus reappeared from the forest with a bundle of dry tinder and a good handful of blaeberries.
The fish and rabbit were tenderly cooked and when the one she called Ian might have given them only a very small portion she had gestured him to ladle out a full plate, with a crust of hard black bread in the juice.
The boatman had eaten nothing, his head lolling on to his chest in a way that was worrying. Marc saw the woman bring an extra blanket and lay him down on it with care. He also saw that she did not bind him again, but left him free. To die in the night without fetters, he supposed. Perhaps there was some folklore from this part of the world that a man should meet his maker unconstrained.
After she had finished with his comfort she came to him, loosening the ties at his wrists and directing him to come to the fire.
There was a flask of whisky waiting and she motioned him to drink. The brooding in her eyes lent him the thought that she had not meant to do this at all and he swallowed as much as he could before she took it back. He was pleased to feel the burn of it down his throat as an edge of calm settled.
He would need it. Already she had lifted her knife.
‘I have to remove the bad skin.’
He had not even answered before she poured whisky across his gash, fire against the hurt and his heart beating as fast as he had ever heard it.
Flames lightened her eyes into living gold and her fingers on the blade were dextrous. He saw she had another scar running from the base of her smallest finger right across the foot of her knuckles to the thumb. He wondered if she had got that at the same time as she had received the one on her face.
‘If you stay still, it will help.’
The message in her words was plain. Move and the agony will be greater. Like a challenge thrown down into the heart of mercy.
He wished he had a piece of leather to bite upon, but she did not offer it and he would not ask.
‘You are experienced in the art of healing?’
At this question both the men behind her began to laugh.
‘The art of killing more like,’ one of them muttered.
He saw her grasp tighten on the blade, an infinitely small movement that suggested wrath a hundred times its size. He trusted it also signalled care or humanity or just simple expertise. At the moment it was the best he could hope for. Marc was surprised when she spoke again and at length.
‘From experience I find healers are women with little mind for the ordinary. My opinion of them is tempered by their need to eke out some existence in a world that might otherwise be lost to madness.’
This train of thought was to his liking. ‘So you are not of that ilk?’
‘Witches and fairy folk are born into the lines that whelp them.’
As Isobel raised her blade into the light the dancing flames were reflected in silver.
‘But your line was different?’ Suddenly he wanted to know something of her. With her mind distracted by his pain and hurt, she might be persuaded to answer him.
But she remained silent, her lips firm as she cut into his flesh, the roiling nausea that had been with him since the rescue at the beach rising up into his throat as bile.
‘You are a religious man, then?’
‘If I said that I was would it help my cause?’
‘With your God or with me?’ she countered, turning the knife into live tissue and watching as blood filled the wound.
‘There is sand and grit in the furrow and it must be removed.’
‘Grain by grain?’ He visibly flinched and she stopped for a second to watch him, a measured challenge in the tilt of her head and so close he could feel the warmth of her breath.
He shook and hated himself for it, but even as he held his hand to anchor the elbow to his side he could not stop it.
Shock, he thought; a malady that men might perish of as easily as they did the cold. On an afterthought he glanced over to the boatman on the blanket and saw that he had stopped breathing.
‘He left us as I poured the whisky across your arm.’ Isobel Dalceann’s words held no whisper of sorrow even though she had tended him. ‘Tomorrow would have been too hard for him to manage, so our Lord in his wisdom has seen him walk along another path.’
Two things hit him simultaneously as she uttered this. She was a spiritual woman and she was also a practical one. For some obscure reason both were comforting.
The pain, however, was starting to war with the numbness of whisky and he stayed quiet. Counting.
By the time he had got to a hundred and she placed her knife back on the hook across the fire he knew he was going to be sick.
She turned away and did not watch him throw up even though she had promised herself that she would. But this man with his bruised green eyes and gilded surcoat was … beguiling. No other damn word for it.
As long as he did not look as though he might fall over and mark the wound with the earth she would wait; patience had always been her one great virtue, after all.
‘Are you finished?’ She wished she might have inflected some empathy into the query, but the others were watching her and they would not expect it.
Nodding, he straightened. He still shook, though not with the fervour that he had done before.
‘The poultice I have prepared will numb any pain you have.’ God in Heaven, now why had she said that?
A slight smile lifted his lips. ‘Do I dare hope that the Angel of Agony has a dint in her armour?’
‘The needle that I will sew your hide up with is not my finest.’
‘Where is your finest?’
‘Lost in the skin of a patient who had no time to sit longer.’
‘A pity, that. Not for him, but for me.’
Unexpectedly she laughed out loud, as though everything in her world was right.
Ian stood and sidled closer. ‘Have ye drunk more of the whisky than ye used on him, Izzy?’ he asked and picked up the cask. Snatching it from him, she placed it on the ground and plucked an earthenware container from her bag. Sticks of fragrant summer heal and dried valerian were caught in twists of paper, but it was the rolled and cleaned gut of a lamb that she sought.
Taking the long sinew between her fingers, she wished the stranger might simply faint away and leave her to the job of what had to happen next, for no amount of alcohol would dull this pain.
With the needle balanced across the flame, she dunked the gut in boiling garlic water before threading it, feeling the sting of heat on her skin. A gypsy she had met once from Dundee had shown her the finer points of medical management and she had never forgotten the rules. Heat everything until boiling point and touch as little as you needed to. Alisdair had bought her silver forceps from Edinburgh after they had been married, but they had been lost in the chaos of protecting Ceann Gronna. Just as he had been! She wished she might have had the small instrument now with its sharp clasp and easy handling.
Her patient’s arm glistened in the firelight, the pure strength and hard muscle, defined by the flame, tensing as she came closer.
‘If you stiffen, it will hurt more.’
He smiled and his teeth were white and even. Isobel wished he had been ugly or old.
‘Hard to be relaxed when your needle looks as if it might better serve a shoemaker.’
‘The skins of all animals have much the same properties.’ Pulling the flap of skin forwards, she dug in deep. The first puncture made a definite pop in the silence, but he did not move. Not even an inch. She had never known a patient to sit so still before and she kent from experience just how much it must hurt.
She made a line of stitches along the wound. Blood welled against the intrusion and his other hand came forwards to wipe it away. She stopped him.
‘It is better to let it weep until the poultice is applied.’ She did not wish to tell him again of her need for cleanliness.
He nodded, his breath faster now. On his top lip sweat beaded, the growth of a one-day beard easily seen, though he turned from her when he perceived that she watched him.
‘The woman has the way of a witch. I do not know if we should trust her.’ His friend spoke in French, caution in his words, but the green-eyed one only laughed.
‘Witch or not, Simon, I doubt that the physic at court could have made a better job.’
Court? Did he mean in Edinburgh or Paris?
Flexing his arm as she finished, he frowned when the stitches caught.
‘It would be better to keep still.’ She did not want her handiwork marred by use.
‘For how long?’
Shrugging, she took the powders up from their twists of paper and mixed them on the palm of her hand with spit. A day or a week? She had seen some men lift a sword the next evening and others fail to be able to ever dress themselves properly again. Positioning his arm, she placed the brown paste over the wound and bound it with cloth, securing the ends with a knot after splitting the fabric.
‘By tomorrow you will know if it festers.’
‘And if it does?’
‘Then my efforts will be all in vain and you will lose either your arm or your life.’
‘The choice of Hades.’
‘Well, the Sea Gods let you loose from the ocean so perhaps the Healing God will follow their lead.’
She was relieved as he moved a good distance away.
Everything ached: his arm, his head and his throat. The rain from above was heavy, wetting them with its constant drizzle.
He slept fitfully, curled into the blanket like a child, waking only as the moon waned against the coming dawn. Isobel Dalceann sat upright against the trunk of a tree. Her hair now was bunched under a hat so that the raindrops fell off the wide edge to dribble down the grey worsted wool of her overcoat. One hand played with the beads of an ebony rosary, glass sparking in the fire-flames and the way her lips moved soundlessly suggested an age-old chant. He could not take his eyes away from a woman whose knife lay across her knees, ready to take a life after spending the whole of an evening trying to save one.
‘I know you are awake.’
He couldn’t help but be amused. ‘Hard to sleep with the possibility of losing my arm on the morrow.’
‘How do you feel now?’
‘But not sick?’
He shook his head.
‘Then I should imagine you will get to keep it, after all.’
‘Your bedside manner lacks a certain tenderness.’
She smiled. ‘Ian hoped you might be dead by now. We placed the other man back into the outgoing tide and he’d like to do the same with you.’
‘Unshackle us and we will walk away in any direction you choose.’
‘The problem with that is you have the way of our names and our faces, and there are many who would hurt us here in the ancient hunting grounds of the Dalceann clan.’
‘If we gave our word of honour to maintain only silence …?’
‘Words of honour have the unfortunate tendency to become surplus to survival once safety is reached.’
‘Then why did you swim out to us in the first place?’
Her eyes flickered to the empty skin at his wrist.
‘The gold?’ He pushed himself up to a sitting position. Streaks of red-hot pain snaked into his shoulder. ‘You could not have known that we were adorned with such before you reached us.’
He caught the white line of her teeth. ‘But we could hope.’
She remained a shadow amongst the trees, her legs against her chest with a blanket around her shoulders. ‘A boat left the Ceann Gronna keep two weeks ago bound south with a dozen of our men aboard and Ian, Angus and I came from the keep to see if we could see any sign of its return. We thought it might be the vessel that had foundered.’ Her hand stilled for a moment on the count of the beads and she switched languages with barely an inflection of change. ‘You spoke with your friend today of a physic at court. Which one do you hail from?’ He was astonished.
‘You speak French?’
‘Fluently. My mother was from Antwerp.’
‘It might have been wiser to keep that to yourself.’
‘As a weapon?’ Deep dimples graced each cheek as she placed her fingers across her mouth. For the first time since he had been in her company he saw the coquette she might have played so very well in any other lifetime. ‘Why would I have need of one? Your friend can hardly walk with his bruising and your arm is bound and useless. Are you right-handed?’
‘Then let us hope you have had practice with your other arm to fend off the enemy.’
‘Why? Are they close?’
‘You are looking straight at one, monsieur. As close as breath.’ No humour at all lingered.
‘A woman who has saved me twice can hardly be classed as an enemy.’
‘The most cunning of foes are those you know and trust.’
He knew she spoke from her own experience but, with a little chink of goodwill settling between them, did not wish to mention it and ruin the discourse.
Besides, here in the night with the moon upon them and the quiet call of birds that did not sleep, either, there was a sense of camaraderie he had never felt before with any woman.
‘What is your name?’ Her question came after many moments of silence and he hesitated. How much should he tell her? He opted for caution.
She turned it on her tongue twice. ‘I had a brother of the same name.’
He noted the past tense.
‘My mother took him with her when she left my father. I was six. He was three. The boat they used to escape foundered off Kincraig Point and they were both drowned.’
Her head tipped up and he saw her eyes watching him in the moonlight. Why had her mother not taken her? He did not like to ask the question, but she answered it for him anyway.
‘Enemies can operate under the guise of love just as easily as they can do hate, and it is my experience that all parents have their favourites.’
‘God.’ His expletive was filled with all the anger she must have felt as a six-year-old.
‘Were there other siblings?’
‘You ask too many questions,’ she said and stood, stretching. The outline of one breast was easily seen against her tunic where the material had slipped to allow the soft abundance an escape.
Mon Dieu, he was turning into a man he did not recognise.
Was it the light-headedness after the doctoring that had him ogling a woman who might still be tossing him back into an outgoing tide come the morrow?
But there was something about her, with her long dark hair and her prickliness, a female set apart from others and fierce. He could not think of even one man of his acquaintance who would have braved such a cold and angry sea.
He also wondered how long she had lived rough like this, lost from society and the discourse of other women.
Her travelling companions lay over the other side of the clearing, their snores mingling with Simon’s, a whisky pouch beside them, and an array of knives and crossbows against a rock at the ready.
The day pressed upon him with all its unexpected turnings. Guy lost, Simon saved and his arm sewn up by a woman who looked like a battered angel. With a sigh he closed his eyes and drifted into sleep.
She could hear him breathing, evenly, slumber taking over from pain.
He lay with his good arm tucked under his head as a cushion against the hardness of the ground, the drizzle sitting on his hair like small jewels. He was a puzzle, this James, with his careful green eyes and his golden bracelet and his way of making certain that all those about him were safe. She had heard the boatman and the one called Simon talk of the way he had rescued them from the trappings of rope and sail as the boat had foundered, clawing his way back to find whoever was left. The marks of bruises all over him told her that the task had not been easy, either, and his vigilance and guardedness here even in the face of pain was unrelenting.
Swearing beneath her breath, she balled her fists and listened to him take breath, quiet in the night and comforting. It was this comfort that had led her to speak of her mother, a subject she had not shared with one other person in all of her life. All twenty-three years of it. Lord, it seemed like so much more.
James. He didn’t suit the name, she thought. Too proper for a man who looked as he did. Too very orthodox and prim. She wished he might wake up so that they could talk again out here in the night alone with the rain to shelter their words from the others, but the day had exhausted him and she was glad that he lay in the arms of rest.
She couldn’t sleep because there were too many thoughts in her head, too many memories dredged up: her mother’s sadness and her father’s fury when he realised that his wife had escaped through one of the sea caves under Ceann Gronna. He had ranted and raved on the high battlements for all of the hours of the storm and when Isobel had gone to him to try to help he had pushed her away, screaming his hatred. Such recollections made her melancholy, a small child blamed for all the self-absorption and egotism of her parents.
She needed some space away from this stranger with all his questions inciting unwanted confidences she had never told another soul. Ian would not hurt them unduly for she had made sure he had understood the consequences should he fail to protect them.
Careful not to wake anyone as she packed up her things, she lifted a branch and disappeared like a ghost into the thickness of the forest.
Isobel Dalceann was gone when he awoke next, the headache he had felt coming in the night now a pounding curse.
Simon looked about as bad as he felt, the shaking the boatman from Le Havre had been consumed by touching him now, and the red in his eyes as bright as blood.
The two Scotsmen sat by the fire, warming their hands across flame.
‘Is there water?’ Marc’s question was directed at the younger man.
‘It depends who’d be a-wanting it,’ the one called Ian answered, his arm coming up to hold the other back from the task of offering succour. Angus, he remembered Isobel Dalceann had called him. The lad looked remarkably like Ian. Perhaps they were kin?
‘My friend is hot …’
‘Then a swim in the cool of the ocean might do him good.’ He rose now and sauntered towards them, malice drawn into the long bones of his body.
‘I noticed a stream on the way here yesterday. That might do even better.’
Scowling, Ian changed the subject altogether. ‘The insignia on the bracelet we took from you—what does it mean?’
‘I picked the piece up in a trading city in the north of France. Perhaps it denotes a family connection or the acknowledgement of some property.’
‘Or perhaps ye are here to spy for the king?’
‘Philip the Sixth of France is too busy with his own problems to be burdened with those of Scotland as well.’
‘I was speaking of David of the Scots.’
‘As a purveyor of fine cloth newly come in from Brittany, I leave politics to the domain of those who understand them.’ Marc made his accent subtly stronger and shrugged his shoulders to underline the point. Indifference held its own defence. It was the intricate little gestures that made a person believe in a ruse rather than the large ones. How long had he known that? With difficulty he stood.
‘Cloth like that of your surcoat?’ Angus’s question implied interest.
‘Indeed.’ The scarlet velvet was rich in the morning light as he looked around.
‘Where is the woman?’ Trying to take any interest from the query, Marc knew he had failed when the other struck him full in the face. Reeling, he regained his footing, a trail of blood dripping across his left eyebrow turning the world red as the soldier’s instinct in him surfaced.
‘Isobel Dalceann is nothing to you, understand, for I saw the way you looked at her with the firelight in your eyes and want in your belly.’
The Scotsman drew a knife as he spat out the words; kicking out, Marc upended him, us